Back in the 1920s, before air travel expanded the possibilities for holiday destinations, resorts in Morris and Essex counties became popular places for Jews to spend their summer vacations.
In places like Mount Freedom and Lake Hopatcong — as in the better-known “resorts” and bungalow colonies of the Catskill Mountains — Jews would play sports, lounge poolside, and eat plentiful amounts of kosher food, all within walking distance of a synagogue.
Nearly a century later, the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey will present a look back at the era with an exhibit called “My Summer Vacation.”
Running Dec. 13-Jan. 28 at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, the exhibit will focus primarily on the vacation spots built on farmland in the Mount Freedom section of Randolph.
On display will be postcards from the now-extinct Jewish hotels that once stood in other NJ towns, such as the Sunrise in Pine Brook, the Edgemere and the Breslin in Lake Hopatcong, and the Goldman in West Orange.
There will also be a video reminiscence by siblings Shirley Kapner Rodin and Sherman Kapner, who grew up in Mount Freedom.
“Their life story is the story of the Jews who not only vacationed in Mount Freedom but when they got there, they stayed,” said JHS executive director Linda Forgosh, who will launch the exhibit with a talk on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 2 p.m. with photographer Heidi Warner.
The JHS is collaborating with the Gaelen Gallery, which has branches on the Aidekman campus and at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, in featuring Warner’s photographs of the faded glory of what were once posh Catskills vacation spots, including Grossinger’s, Kutscher’s, the Concord, and the Nevele — all popular with Jews from New York and New Jersey.
Some Borscht Belt resorts became Buddhist ashrams, others turned into Orthodox summer camps, and still others were demolished. Entrepreneurs hope that casino gambling will trigger a renaissance of what was once called the “Jewish Alps.”
But memories of happy times there still burn brightly for people now middle-aged and older.
“For as long as I can remember, my family visited the Catskill Mountains on vacation,” said the 45-year-old Warner, who grew up in Springfield and now lives in Berkeley Heights.
“We had a huge extended Jewish family, and over 100 of us would reunite in one of the many Borscht Belt hotels. Our family practically took up the whole hotel. We would switch hotels if people didn’t like the food. We went until I was out of high school,” she said.
Warner remembers her father “shmoozing” with relatives in the lobby, while she and her cousins hung out at the ice rink, the game room, or the soda shop. “Spending time in these hotels, I learned the value of family and close bonds and felt that strong feeling of commonality. It was a simple and wonderful time,” she said.
In 1984, Andrea Bergman worked as a cocktail waitress in the Imperial Room at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, NY. Three decades later she manages the PJ Library at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life — the Jewish identity-building organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. She remembers that summer as “a wonderful experience.”
One of her outstanding memories was waiting on the late comedian Joan Rivers and her daughter, Melissa.
“I actually served Melissa an alcoholic drink without knowing she was underage. It was a mistake on my part but I still got a nice tip. Joan Rivers caught me and she yelled at me a little,” she said.
Forgosh, author of Jews of Morris County, said the Jewish resorts of north Jersey began when Bernard Hirschhorn, a wealthy New York garment maker, saw a real estate ad in The New York Times offering land for sale in Mount Freedom in 1917.
Two years later he bought 100 acres and built the area’s first bungalow colony. In time, there were 45 such family resorts in the Mount Freedom area. Most bore the names of their owners, such as Aronowitz, Cohen, Epstein, Finver, Friedman, Goodman, and Grennhut.
All were built within walking distance of a synagogue called the Hebrew Congregation of Mount Freedom. Together with a friend named Isadore Rosenfarb, Hirschhorn, in 1923, helped fund and organize the Orthodox shul that is now called the Mount Freedom Jewish Center.
Mount Freedom also hosted eight kosher hotels as well as children’s camps and swim clubs.
The town also had a kosher butcher shop and its own post office.
“At its peak, the summertime brought upward of 10,000 visitors to Mount Freedom. In the winters, the resorts opened their doors for meetings of trade unions and other organizations,” said Forgosh.
The last of the eight hotels — Saltz’s — closed its doors in 1978.
When Warner returned to the Catskills with a camera several years ago, she began documenting the decrepit state of the former resorts during “trips that were both sad and beautiful to me. The memories I have of these places make up who I am…. I wandered the abandoned buildings finding bits and pieces of that amazing time, just left there to rot.”
Perhaps the most poignant memories of spending time in the Catskills came from Robert Max of Summit, an American soldier who lost 56 pounds as a prisoner in a Nazi slave labor camp.
To cure his severe malnutrition, the Veterans Administration sent him to Grossinger’s in Liberty, NY.
“After two weeks there I gained so much weight that it aided my recovery. The food was incredible,” he told NJJN.